Beyond the B.A.S.I.C.S. Blog

The Science of Common Sense: Making Sense of Motivating Operations

August 1, 2011

Scenario 1: You’re the third cart in line at the only open lane in the grocery store. Little Johnny’s been a trooper – he ate all of his lunch, put his own shoes on, and even used the potty all by himself before you left.  But that was an hour ago.  Since then he’s toppled a display of peaches, opened a box of cookies you hadn’t really intended to buy, and entertained you with the “I really, really, really, really, REALLY like TRUCKS because they’re TRUCKS” song for the last forty-five minutes.  Oh yeah, and the store air conditioner is broken.  I just walked in, offered to stand in line for you, and told you to go get in the car.

Question: How badly do you want to get into your car right now?

Answer: Getting into your fabulous car–all filled up with freezing cold air, Little Johnny’s favorite (new and different) CD, the bottle of water you thoughtfully left in the cup holder, and a gentle hum that will have Johnny in dreamland before you leave the parking lot – sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it? Mmmhmm.  Keep reading.

Scenario 2: It’s Monday morning. You just got back from a fabulous week long vacation at the beach. You were up until two last night watching a movie, and Little Johnny decided 4:00am seemed like the perfect time to wake up – and stay up. Your boss sent you an e-mail while you were away saying she’d love to have “a sit-down” as soon as you get in this morning, and the guy on the radio just told you there’s a ten car pile-up on the beltway. Oh yeah, and it’s been snowing non-stop for three days. I just walked in, took a drink from my cup of coffee (oh dear, you forgot to make your own coffee, didn’t you?), and told you to go get in the car.

Question: How badly do you want to get into your car now?

ABA Translation:  Welcome to Motivating Operations, a super science-y way of telling you to observe your surroundings and use your common sense.

Motivating Operations (MOs) are environmental changes that effect behavior on two levels: first, they increase (or decrease) the effectiveness of an instruction. The words, “Go get in the car,” sound pretty darn nice in the first scenario, don’t they? And in the second, well, not so much.  The second thing MOs change is behavior. You’re much less likely to actually get in the car with an ominous meeting, heavy traffic, and bad driving conditions in your future – even IF there’s a bottle of water and a Wiggles CD waiting for you once you get there.

The fancy ABA people will probably tell you something like this: The value altering effects of a motivating operation, whether it be an eliciting operation or an abating operation, are transitory and momentary, and therefore cannot be relied upon to consistently change the frequency of a behavior, the value of a reinforcer or punisher, or the impact of a discriminative stimulus.

You ought to just remember this: MOs change all the time, and so do their effects on what you’re trying to do.

In Practice: Use your common sense. Even if you know that M&Ms are Little Johnny’s ABSOLUTE FAVORITE FOOD, if he just had a Popsicle, or a big glass of water, or lunch, he’s not going to be as interested in the candy. Wait a few minutes before you give an instruction, or give a different instruction that you can reinforce with something other than M&Ms.  If you’re ONLY using M&Ms for a particular task, try to practice that task when you know Johnny is getting hungry.  If you’re working on a safety goal of having your client walk with you to a certain location, wait until she’s been sitting at the table for a while and looks like she might be ready to get up. Use your environment to your advantage.

Look at the big picture.  How has your client’s day’s been going?  Did he have a nap? Did she eat? Did anything dramatic happen at school? All of these little bits of information will help you.  Don’t set yourself up to fail – if something isn’t going well, try something else. Work within the stipulations of your behavior plan, but be flexible.   In the end, what matters more – Johnny telling you his phone number RIGHT NOW, or Johnny telling you his phone number?


By Melissa Ruiz, BCaBA


Leave a Reply

Previous Post    Return    Next Post
%d bloggers like this: